1273 – 1903

From knights to clothiers and smugglers to Sheriffs, things have not always been as peaceful at the Walled Nursery as they are today. However, the first 600 years were a time of flourishing growth for the land then known as ‘Tongs’.

The Walled Nursery and neighbouring St Ronan’s School once combined to create the Estate known as Tongswood. The place name derived from the fact that two streams of the river Rother flows through the original Estate. Twang or tang is old English, meaning fork of two river streams.

The first record of 'Tongs' was found in the Kent Hundred Rolls:  'Simon held land in Kent in 1273 - Simon de Tonge'. However, it was the birth of the English Cloth Trade in the 14th Century that really put Tongs on the map. A Flemish Clothier by the name of Dunk was invited over to England to share his skills and he settled in Kent. It was the early generations of the Dunk family who built the first house on what became known as Tongswood.

Tongswood passed through generations of Dunks, who expanded from cloth to ironworking until, under the watch of Sir Thomas Dunk Kt., the Estate grew to around 1200 acres. Sir Thomas (Sheriff of London, 1711) was a great entrepreneur and highly respected man, given the Freedom of the City of London. He was also a great benefactor and when he died in 1718 he left six almshouses, a school and a school master’s house to the village of Hawkhurst.

The executor of Sir Thomas’ will, William Richards, inherited the Estate in 1733 on condition he change his name to Dunk. This condition passed down to future heirs and when his daughter Anne inherited the Estate, she therefore became Anne Dunk.

In 1741, Anne married the Hon. George Montagu (2nd Earl of Halifax), bringing with her the princely sum of £110,000.  Montagu, in keeping with the condition of the will, changed his name to Montagu-Dunk. Anne sadly passed away at the tender age of 28 in 1753.

George conveyed Tongs to be leased to Mr Jeremiah Curteis of Rye for 1000 years at the yearly rate of sixpence. Rumours have been whispered about Mr Curteis for years: that he was involved in the Hawkhurst Gang – the notorious smugglers terrorising southeast England at the time; that he fled England for France after the murder of a young labourer; that he died of smallpox several years later on a boat returning home.

All these things were almost certainly true of a Mr Jeremiah Curteis of Rye, but was he our Jeremiah Curteis? Our research has recently revealed another Jeremiah Curteis in Rye at the same time. Perhaps less colourful, he was (on the surface at least) infinitely more noble - a lawyer and a town clerk. We are endeavouring to establish which Mr Curteis is ours, but until we prove otherwise, we know which story we prefer!

Whether he be smuggler or lawyer, Mr Curteis moved on from Tongswood and conveyed his interest to William Jenkin (d.1784). From this point until 1841, Tongswood passed through numerous families, but was already becoming noted for her beauty. In 1839, a sale advertisement for a section of the Estate described a farmhouse with outbuildings as a ‘complete ferme ornée’. Ferme Ornée Gardens were inspired by the Romantic Movement and sought to emulate Arcadia, a pastoral paradise, combining working farms harmoniously with the beauty of nature.

The first glasshouses were built by Foster and Pearson Limited of Nottingham during the mid to late 1800’s. There are no records of the exact year that they were built, but research suggests it may have been around 1870. In 1865 a tea broker named William Cotterill bought the main house and surrounding land for £8750. From this time until 1874, Cotterill carried out extensive work on the house and gardens on a scale not seen before, so it is most likely during this period that the glasshouses were built.

The Estate continued changing hands quite rapidly until 1903 when it was bought by Mr C E Gunther. It was a new century and things were about to change for Tongswood.

1903 – 1945 The Gunther Years

As a new century dawned, Britain was in the throes of the second phase of the Industrial Revolution. Scientific invention was at its height and the economy was thriving. Unemployment was relatively low and Liberal Welfare Reforms were on the way. Britain – and Tongswood - were moving into a bright, hopeful future, unaware of what was waiting around the corner.

Charles Gunther bought the Tongswood Estate in 1903. At this time the estate stretched up to Benenden taking in Park Farm, Tilden, Great and Little Ninevah, Woodsden, Forest Farm, Diprose, Hinksden, Stevens Farm and Tongswood Home Farm.

Gunther was High Sheriff of Kent from 1926-1927 and a distinguished businessman. He was Chairman of the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company (founded by his father) as well as Director of OXO, which celebrated 100 years of the OXO cube in 2010.

In 1903, gardening and horticulture was still benefitting from the excitement of the daring Victorian Plant Hunters and it was the height of fashion to have grand houses to show off one’s exotic plants. So when Gunther took over the Tongswood Estate, he built more glasshouses. He also added cold frames and made adjustments to the Vinery by adding the Fernery and raising the roofs. Determined to make his mark, he then raised the walls of the gardens.

Tongswood Gardens, as the Walled Nursery was then known, required nine men to tend to the two acre garden and its glasshouses. There were now 13 glasshouses in total, including a vinery, peach house, melon house, fruit house and carnation house. The garden produced beautiful flowers, fruit and vegetables, providing for the main house, their house in London and even surplus produce for the Hawkhurst Cottage Hospital.

It took a fine man to manage such a large concern and that man was Mr Ernest Hardcastle, Head Gardener 1914-45. Mr Hardcastle also worked alongside renowned Quaker botanist, James Backhouse, in designing and building an acre of spectacular rock gardens for Mr Gunther.

While Tongswood was thriving, tragedy was not to spare the Gunther family. In 1910, Charles’ first wife, Leonie, died of an illness and in 1914 The Great War darkened their doors. In 1917, Charles and Leonie’s son, Norman, died in Northern France aged just 19 and was awarded the Military Cross. Norman’s brother, Charles, died only a year later also in the fields of Northern France, aged 28. 12 other men from the Estate did not return from the War and the Gunthers erected a memorial in honour of those they had lost.

Mr Gunther re-married in 1912. His new wife, Helen Bell, took a great interest in the gardens of the Estate and brought them great acclaim. In 1925, their sub-tropical gardens appeared in Gardeners’ Chronicle. By 1927, Tongswood Gardens were considered among the top 50 in the country and in 1930, their Rockery was featured in Country Life Magazine.

Unfortunately tragedy was to strike again when Charles Gunther died of a heart attack at his shooting lodge at the Paper Mill in 1931. He was 68 years old. Helen then auctioned 670 acres of the outlying portions of the Estate.

In 1939, war returned and the house at Tongswood was requisitioned by the army. Helen moved to a new house, Little Tongs, at the end of Water Lane. After the war in 1945 the estate was sold to St Ronan’s School and as for many estates at that time, it was the end of an era.



1945 to Present Day

It was 1945 and the world would never be the same again. Relief at the end of the war was soon replaced by despair and frustration at continued rationing and inadequate housing. Britain wanted change. Class distinctions were broken down. The modern Welfare State and the NHS were born. The Empire was crumbling and large Estates such as Tongswood also had to change with the times.

By 1945, the Tongswood Estate was somewhat depleted and what remained was owned by St Ronan’s school. The house and the main grounds were utilised by the school, but what should they do with Tongswood Gardens?

Rationing did not come to an end until 1954 and the Dig for Victory campaign was still in place long after the troops came home, so St Ronan’s School began to lease Tongswood Gardens to a succession of market gardeners. The first was Jack Cripps. Jack and his staff – some no more than children – would work their fingers to the bone from dusk to dawn, growing fruit and vegetables to transport around the country and help feed the nation. Later market gardeners included Roland Playford and Jim Weeks. It seemed that Tongswood Gardens had found her place in a post-war world.

However, as Britain moved away from austerity towards supermarket shopping, cheap imported produce and readymade meals, it was never going to be easy to keep such a large concern going – particularly as the glasshouses were slowly being allowed to fall into a substantial state of disrepair. The future began to look uncertain.

Having leased the gardens for a number of years, Peter and Karen Horn had fallen in love with the gardens and the glasshouses. In 1995 they purchased the site and gave it a new lease of life. They turned it into a plant nursery and changed the name from Tongswood Gardens to The Walled Nursery. They began to lovingly restore what glasshouses they could on a micro-budget and are today credited with saving them from total ruin.

Peter and Karen decided to retire but fortunately two more people, who loved The Walled Nursery just as much, were waiting in the wings. In 2010 Monty and Emma Davies purchased the Walled Nursery and took over guardianship of the glasshouses – their Demanding Ladies.

Society is now turning back to home-made produce. Awareness of climate change and dangers of imported diseases from plants is growing. Slowly but steadily, the Walled Nursery was coming back into her own. But there were still the Demanding Ladies to contend with and if you factor in the unpredictable weather and even more unpredictable economy, a simple plant nursery was no longer enough to sustain the constant restoration required.

Monty and Emma have introduced a series of courses, lectures and events at the Nursery. They opened a café in 2016 and expanded their gift shop. The Walled Nursery today is no longer just a beautiful place to buy spectacular plants, but an educational centre as well as a unique events venue hosting everything from art exhibitions to craft fairs to open air theatre, not to mention the perfect spot for a cup of tea and slice of cake or a delicious lunch.

The Walled Nursery is safe for now and one suspects that after 700 years of noblemen and charlatans, dreamers and schemers, this little plot of land that started life so long ago as ‘Tongs’ will be here for a long time yet